At the moment I am on a National Concert Hall binge. On Friday the 6th June 2012, I went back to attend “From Russia…with fun” with my trusty companion and my parents. This was a programme of music made up of light hearted pieces from three of Russia’s best known and loved composers. The evening got to off to a dodgy start (we forgot the tickets) but we found an internet café, battled the winds and rain and made it on time, all excited for the concert.
The orchestra opened with the Polonaise and Waltz from “Eugene Onegin” (1879). “Eugene Onegin” is an opera based on a novel of the same name by Alexander Pushkin and is considered to be one of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s best operas. Contrary to the title it is not about a man who has only one type of gin (which I know I am pronouncing completely incorrect) rather it follows the story of a man who is mean and selfish and whose acts have brought sadness and catastrophe to the people he cares about.
The orchestra performed the Polonaise first. A Polonaise is a dance of Polish origin which was very popular in the 19th century. It has a very grand feel to it so was a good choice for this scene which portrayed a grand ball in a stately Russian Manor. The piece opened with loud and dramatic fanfare, which woke us up and grabbed our attention. From here the music continued with its majestic feel but in a light, fun and spirited way. It definitely was not boring and it was upbeat and cheerful, even the conductor (Timothy Henty) was hopping about on his pedestal. To break up the melody there were some very dramatic parts where the string played low, broad strokes to create a buzzing sound. Here the conductor twisted his arms in a winding, snake-like way and then went back to hopping when the melody returned to the main tune.
The Waltz (which I doubt needs explaining) was a much gentler section. It was again beautiful and airy, creating the images of skirts skimming the ground lightly when people are dancing. It was charming and delicate and I really enjoyed it.
The thing I love most about Tchaikovsky is just how accessible his music is. Often times people use the word accessible as a slur but I am absolutely using it as a compliment. It is just so easy to listen to and enjoy but it retains all the intelligence and creativity your brain needs to keep it nourished.
Next in the programme was music from the man whose name I can never pronounce properly, Dmitri Shostakovich, who is one of the most important Russian composers of all time. The piece that was played this evening was the “Piano Concerto No.1 in C Minor, Op.35” (1933). This was written in a few weeks, just before his 27th birthday and performed later that year. Shostsakovich was already quite a well established composer at the time and this piece was well received (just to depress me even more).
It is made up of four parts Allegretto, Lento, Moderato and Allegro con brio. These can change depending on the interpretation but tonight they played the piece as described above. It is commonly said that the Moderato is really just an introduction to Allegro con brio, and this is why you can see this piece separated into three parts.
Playing the piano was Elisaveta Blumina, who was making her NCO début and Graham Hastings was on lead Trumpet. I was delighted to see that they were both placed at the front of the orchestra, as it is nice to see something other than the strings for a change. The Steinway piano that was wheeled out for Ms Blumina was gorgeous and I instantly coveted it, not that it would fit in my flat.
The piano melodies were really well executed. It was easy to see how Ms Blumina has earned her reputation as a eminent pianist and musician. The piano alternated through sweeping scales, disjointed melodies and deep base notes creating a disjointed yet appropriate theme. At times the music sounded quite spooky and dissonant. You could hear snatches of melodies, syncopated jazz-like tunes and strong folk influences. The whole range of the piano was used and really showcased the talents of the pianist. For the performance Ms Bulmina bopped about in her seat in time to the music, curled up and arched her back while playing, demonstrating the intensity of the music.
The piece is meant to be a double concerto but in reality, most people agree, that it sounds like a piano concerto. The trumpet is not really given equal exposure to the piano and the piece is heavily dominated by the piano as a result. Saying that though, without the trumpet the piece would sound quite empty and in my opinion would be weaker for an absence. When the trumpet did play, it was clear and distinguished. The melodies seemed to have more form and structure and added a really nice element to the overall atmosphere of the piece.
The strings in their support role were also fantastic. They swayed between urgent, hectic playing to sweeping calm notes. They squeaked and plucked creating a colourful background over which the piano and trumped did their thing. They were a good anchor for the music which allowed the piano do take off with fast, scaling notes which did not make it too unconformable to listen to.
Sometimes it felt like the lines of music were completely ignoring each other but it worked. The music cartwheeled from fast and upbeat, to choppy and jazzy to a smoother, more wistful sound.
Overall I don’t think this piece of music will be for everyone. My trusty companion although impressed by the skill of the musicians, did not like the music all . I, on the other hand, very much enjoyed it. I thought the change of melodies was crafted brilliantly and not like a monkey throwing darts at a score (like some modern composers who shall remain nameless). The music changed moods from creepy to melancholic to upbeat and fun and was a great choice for the evening’s programme.
The last piece of music was “Scheherazade” (1888) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. I first heard this piece of music in Issue 11 of the “The Magical Music Box”, Sindbad and the Kraaken (hense the something old!). The story of Scheherazade is familiar to most people, poor old Scheherazade has found herself married to the evil Sultan, who likes to kill his brides after one night. She has a cunning plan however and tells him riveting stories for 1,001 nights (see I told you, you knew the story!). In the end he doesn’t kill her and she saves herself and all the women who would have died because of that arsehole and his issues.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece is split into four parts to represents her story and the stories that she tells and I just loved it. The four parts are detailed below.
The Sea and Sinbad’s Ships.
This piece captures the audience’s attention with heavy brass and a booming melody. This represents the sultan, who is a brash, scary and forceful man. This then morphs into Scheherazade’s theme which is simply angelic. You get a really clear sense of a delicacy and complexity tinged with sadness. Her theme is played by Alan Smale, who is the leader of the orchestra, and you would have heard a pin drop in the concert hall. No one dared breathe or move, such is the power of Scheherazade’s theme.
Unsurprisingly, due to his Naval past, Rimsky-Korsakov paints a vivid portrait of an ocean. The music moves like waves, with the stings playing broad strokes and the rest of the orchestra sailing above. The cello is particularly wonderful and really makes you feel like you are on a rocking ocean. But as always we cannot become too comfortable as the brass and percussion blast loudly creating a sense of danger and foreboding, to draw us and the Sultan, as listeners, deeper into the story.
The Kalendar Prince
The harp is added to Scheherazade’s theme which gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. The theme also becomes more complex with double notes being played shrilly to great affect. The wind section really comes into its own here, playing melodies that would make you want to get up and dance.
All the way through the piece speeds up and then slows down, and speeds again adding to the anticipation and suspense. The lines of music seem to answer each other in an echoing prose which is really magical (the inclusion of the harp really enhances this). The melodies are clear and you can be under no doubt that they are telling a story rather than notes drafted on a whim.
Also the sense of drama does not leave, in fact it heightens and I could just imagine a hero(ine) running round a boat on a great adventure. Loud, powerful brass and strings are played like a hunting call to give the atmosphere of impending disaster. This smashes the illusion of peace, which reflects Scheherazade’s own story perfectly.
The Young Prince and The Young Princess
Now for a bit of romance! Well you can’t have a folk tale and not include some falling in love. The strings play rocking melodies, serenading the audience. The piece is bright and smooth, painting a lush image of the exotic, Arabian setting for the tale. The wind instruments played angelic scales and again you were alomst afraid to breathe in case you made a sound disturbing the music.
The percussion are utilised in a particularly marvellous way here. Tings of the triangle, shakes, bangs and beats craft an excellent dance feel of toe-tapping worthiness.
Festival at Bagdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.
The largely named fourth part above (I am not retyping it) is fantastically invigorating and will have you jumping out of your seat to look for adventure. It bursts into life in a few dramatic, boisterous notes before falling into Scheherazade’s theme which is played more ornate than ever.
Here all the elements that I love are combined, the percussion, busy strings, distinctive blasts of brass and swooping wind instruments. All his love for the exotic and penchant for the dramatic blasts forth in this exciting piece.
OK so you an probably guess that I really like this piece and I like it even more each time I hear it. Rimsky-Korsakov just had such a talent from crafting terrific images with his music and every thought, emotion and message is transmitted so perfectly. He took full advantage of all the instruments that he had at his disposal and as a result knew exactly the strengths and sounds of each of them. This why his music has that feeling of master skill and care, which is so important in music. He knew how to create a picture and you will be hard pressed to find an example superior to Scheherazade.
It was a great night of music which I really enjoyed. What was lovely to see was how much some members of the orchestra and the composer seemed to enjoy it too. My only regret was not picking a seat where I could see the brass, wind and percussion sections. I have a real love for the wind section in particular and would like to see them perform.
The concert is still available to listen to on Lyric FM so go straight away and pop it on. Let me know what you thought if you do!